How to Finish What You Start

This video by Thomas Frank inspired this blog post. I highly recommend checking it out if you have the time! It’s generalized to any creative process, but I want to offer resources and exercises for authors to do to help us finish our WIPs! Many of these are tried-and-true methods for beating writer’s block, so let me know if you’ve tried them before, and how they work for you!

The Problem: Paralysis of Choice

Tell me if you can relate: You sit down for a writing session. Worlds are at your fingertips. You’ve snatched an hour of time for yourself. Crack your knuckles and prepare for the most productive word sprint of your life. Open the document. Open another document. Open another document. Scroll through the last two chapters of three different stories. Hem and haw for fifteen minutes over which one to choose. Consult your writing buddies to decide. Flip a coin. Change your mind because you disagree with fate. Check the clock to set your pomodoro time and… realize that you’ve only got 10 minutes left.

Not you? How about this: You know exactly which WIP you want to write. You fire up the laptop, pull up a blank page, and… now what? Do you write in order? Follow an outline or go swinging into the wilderness of the plot jungle? Should you jump ahead to the scene that’s been festering in your brain for weeks or finish the stalled chapter that only needs two more pages? Which character should narrate? What POV works best for this story? Maybe you should rewrite the entire thing in present tense instead of past. Maybe you need to fine-tune the first chapter. Again.

Solution: Create Self-Imposed Limitations

The problem in both situations is the spectacle of options available to you. To take the best advantage of the time you have and make effective progress on the project, you need some boundaries.

Deadlines/Time Pressure: Writing sprints are great for this, just start small, and challenge yourself to beat your word count each time or compete with friends. I’ve seen them used most often during National Novel Writing Month (which is a deadline itself), but you can use them anytime, and I know several youtubers, such as Kate Cavanaugh and Sarah Sutton who sometimes host virtual writing sprint livestreams. This is also the inspiration behind my Monthly Goals: maybe I don’t write every day but by the end of the month, the words are done. If a plain vanilla timer isn’t good enough for you, I recommend the Forest app/browser extension combo which locks you out of the internet, and Write or Die, which will shock the fear of the reaper into your bones.

Scope: If you find yourself frustrated by tinkering away with the same project for yeeearrs on end, the issue might be that your skills are not yet up to par with your tastes, and you need to go back to the basics. Shelve the epic and get some practice finishing smaller-scope projects. Maybe start a new short story that’s a character study set in your protagonist’s backstory. Write a field guide entry about an element of the world, as if it were an in-universe textbook. Scale down. If you struggle with too many active WIPs, choose one that’s easy to finish and mark it off your list before starting any new ones. The satisfaction of finishing a small project and the brain-refresh of doing something different will also give you more motivation to go work on the big one again.

Tools: This one calls me out specifically. It’s similarly related to the above point about scope. Do you really need 8 POVs, 4 subplots, or 7 books to tell your story? Are 3 outlines and 4 edits really necessary? Can you hand it off to 5 betas, instead of 20? Could you trim down the number of nations or religions or magical schools to simplify the world-building? Sometimes the answer is no – you need to go through due process in order to complete a quality project. Other times, you might overcomplicate things for yourself. Take a step back and decide what’s really necessary.

Restrict Your Ability to Undo: This strategy is to get rid of perfectionism. If you don’t like what you’ve wrote in a session, you might find yourself deleting those words and ending with no more than when you started, even if you’ve been sitting at the keyboard for hours. Perpetual editing cycles are evil traps. This may seem counterintuitive, especially if your typing speed is much faster than your writing, your handwriting is messy, or you struggle with writer’s cramp, but shut the computer. Forcing yourself to crack open one of those fancy notebooks and commit ink to paper will get your brain unstuck and moving forward. Write in pen. Do not cross out. Don’t write on scrap-paper or regular school loose-leaf, in case you’re tempted to rip out the page, crumple it into a ball, and pitch it in the wastebin. You might slow down at first, because you have to stop and seriously think about how exactly you want to word that next sentence for maximum impact, but you’ll be more likely to keep it. Slow but steady forward progress is better than deleted progress.

Peer Pressure: I’m adding this one since it wasn’t originally in the video but I think it’s one of the most effective if, like me, you are a people-pleaser who takes promises very seriously. Promise that you WILL have something done by a certain date, and if you don’t deliver, their disappointment will haunt you to your grave, or you owe them a soda, or something. Starting this blog and my mailing list keeps me accountable because no matter what other nonsense is going on in my life, I know people are expecting weekly posts and quarterly new stories and victorious goals reports every month. Writing sprints are 150% more fun when you can compete with a friend, share your work, and receive immediate validation. If you’re limiting scope, or tools, try submitting your short story to a magazine or anthology, which often have a certain prompt or theme. Participate in something like Inktober or MerMay but instead of drawing, post flash-fiction. Bring your fancy journal and pen to a coffee shop and make sure that you look busy for the passer-bys. That last one might be more weaponized-social-anxiety, but it works for me at least haha.

Thank you for reading! I hope you found this a useful reference. What’s a project that you want to finish soon? If you like my blog and want to support my writing projects, please consider donating to my Ko-Fi. Next week I’ll be sharing a book review of Patricia McLinn’s Survival Kit for Writers who Don’t Write Right. Until then, happy writing!

6 Ways DnD Has Made Me A Better Writer

This is a random topic compared to my usual posts, but it’s one that’s been knocking around in my brain for a while. I’m currently in five campaigns (that meet with varying degrees of regularity), I’ve finished several one-shots and two long-running games, and have two more on deck for the summer, so I’ve had plenty of experience coming up with whacky characters and navigating the dilemmas that the DMs throw at as. I’ve only DMed a few times myself, but I am always in storytelling mode, so this was really just the natural result of exposure to the clicky-clacky-math-rocks. This is less focused on mechanics, and more geared toward player dynamics and character creation, but I hope you find it useful!

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How To Write A Fighter

If you’re here looking for a guide on how to write a fight scene, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place. There are approximately 59,900 results on google about descriptive verbs and pacing, which are useful, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today we’re talking about characterization.

Everyone loves a fighter. They’re compelling by nature – someone who’s willing to put their life and safety on the line for something they believe in or a person they care about is someone the audience will root for. But how does this archetype act when they’re not in combat? How might a trained character approach a battle differently from your average Joe? I think the mindset of a fighter is interesting to explore in slice of life scenes, and this article will break down some ways to think about your OCs in a different context.

What are my credentials to talk about this? I did Shotokan Karate for 9 years, fencing for 3 semesters (started with Epee and switched to Sabre recently, if you’re curious), and just started taking Tae Kwon Do on my college campus. I am not a sharpshooter, but I have some experience with both firearms and bows as well. This article won’t get into details of different weapons or fighting styles, but the advice will apply to a broad range of contexts and genres. So, shall we begin?

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5 ways to Encourage Kids to Read

When he was ten, my little brother was not a “fan” of anything. He enjoyed certain tv shows, but never got invested in the story and rarely read voluntarily, much to our mother’s chagrin. Mostly, he hung out with his jock of an older brother who poked fun at the fandom and writerly shenanigans of my marvel-obsessed sister and I, the resident Nerd and Author who “Care Too Much” about fictional worlds. Today, my twelve-year-old brother finished a 12-page-long original story, and is working his way through Lord of the Rings.

Around the same time, at the start of 2020, I was in one of the worst reading slumps of my LIFE. High school literature classes and a busy college/work schedule took my reading habit from several books a week to 1 or 2 a year. Thanks to a few beloved friends’ encouragement, I started the Stormlight Archive, and bounced back to reading over 30 books by this past year.

I’m not a teacher, or a parent, but I have learned a few things from watching his development these past two years, and watching the tricks that my friends pulled on me. For anyone else who spends a lot of time with impressionable kids and wants to play the (incredibly fun) role of neighborhood eccentric that sends children on adventures, here are 5 ways to encourage them to read.

1) Meet them where their interests lie

This transformation started with Avatar the Last Airbender. It just came out on Netflix, and we watched it as a family during the quarantine at the start of COVID. I could include him in conversations with my sister about fan-theories and subtext, and it made him feel grown-up to participate and contribute. When he came up with his own daydreams, I asked him to write his updates for me, and directed him to more reading material. Likewise, my friends indulgently listened to my writing rambles and gently nudged me toward a series they knew I would enjoy based on the similar tropes.

Try to introduce kids to similar genres as the ones they already enjoy. If they like a video game or tv-show, try to find novelizations or comics to accompany it. Show them how to use a library catalogue to look up the author’s last name and find other books. Listen to their rambles and ask questions, instead of just nodding and smiling. I’m sure we can all remember how hurtful, dismissive adults were when we shared our interests as kids. If they can trust you to be a supportive friend, they’ll be more receptive to your input in the future. I will accept recommendations from those same friends now with no questions asked because I trust their judgement on my taste in books.

2) Tell them stories

Making dinner? Weeding the garden? Folding laundry? Instead of putting on music or a movie for background noise, ask them if they want to hear a story. Humans have been telling tall tales over the household chores since the beginning of time, and oral storytelling is one of the most powerful gateways to voluntary silent reading. Tell them about crazy things you did when you were their age. Share your favorite fairy tales from that one obscure book in the back of the library. Pass the plot back and forth in a “choose your own adventure” never-ending story to let them contribute. Frame it as a fun way to make the chore less painful, and if they enjoy the story time, you might find them coming back to help if it means they can hear what happens next.

3) Don’t Gatekeep

Do they want to read comics? Fanfiction? Chapter books below their grade level? An epic that might be too advanced? Let them! If it’s fun, they’ll keep reading, and eventually move onto other types of literature as their tastes change. If it becomes a chore, they’ll lose interest and give up. This is exactly the tactic that English class pulled on me to put me into a 3-year-long reading slump. It says something dire when the most interesting and uplifting book we read all year was an account of the Armenian Genocide from a survivor’s descendent. If you want to nudge them toward the classics, there are easier methods than assigning something from an arbitrary reading list as homework.

4) Read together, Share favorites

Related to the above point about telling stories, never underestimate the sacred power of the bed-time read-aloud or a book club. Taking the time to read with someone else proves that you think the story is worthwhile, and there’s a special kind of joy in watching someone discover something you love. Take it from the Princess Bride.

If you know they will never pick up a certain book, such as a difficult classic, a long book they don’t have time for, or something outside their usual genre, reading it aloud to them is an excellent incentive. It outsources the work of reading to someone else and allows their hands to be free to play with blocks or work while they can still enjoy the story. If you don’t have the time to do a read-aloud, buying or renting them an audiobook can also be effective! I do most of my reading nowadays in the car while commuting to work.

5) Reward Initiative

The Annual Library Summer Reading Program was my bread and butter growing up. You logged how many minutes you read each day, which stacked onto your total tally. When you reached 200, 400, 600, and 800 minutes, you could redeem prizes and free books from the display. If you don’t have access to such a program, or it’s not summer, proposing your own challenge can take advantage of a competitive streak. Once, I bet my brother that he couldn’t read all 28 of the original Magic Tree House books before his birthday, and when he posted that last badge in his passport, he won a one-on-one ice cream date with me.

For me now, the chance to ramble about stories with my friends is incentive enough. They’re often subjected to “live-reactions” as I text my running theories. We usually meet up once I finish to have a debrief and share predictions for the next book. It’s nice to see them and share the excitement while taking a break from homework. And hey, I won’t say no to ice cream either.

Thank you for reading this post! I wish you the best of luck on all your bibliophilic adventures! Have a great day, and happy writing! 🙂

How To Write Siblings

(This is a republished version of a guide I wrote on Tumblr a while ago that many people seemed to write. I’m posting it here for the benefit of the wider blogging community and for ease of searching because tumblr’s tagging system is notoriously trash.)

There are a few key aspects of the family dynamic you’ll want to keep in mind that will influence how the different relationships form! Siblings can have such a complex relationship that becomes fascinating to see in larger families: they can be best friends and worst enemies, and it’s a criminally underrated dynamic in fiction. Speaking as someone with 4 younger siblings, I’m here today to show you how to build accurate and compelling relationships for your characters.

Parental Roles:

(I’m using the term “parent” loosely, since it may vary depending on the story, but “legal guardian” sounded weird. Y’know what I mean)

Good parents will encourage mutually respectful relationships between their kids, avoid playing favorites, and work to settle bickering quickly and fairly. Siblings might get on each other’s nerves, but they’ll also be friends and whacky in-jokes abound.

Poor parents will either create an incredibly tight bond between siblings (to compensate for the lack of a reliable/safe adult support structure) or will drive siblings apart (probably by playing favorites, creating a bitter rivalry).

Another thing to consider is if both a mother and father figure are present. Kids being raised by a single parent or a grandparent will have a different dynamic than if both were around. Divorce or parental death can be a major traumatic early life event, and will affect how each child relates to their parent and to each other. I can’t really speak to this because I didn’t grow up in a separated family, but research by reading first-hand experiences. If the kids are orphans, or both parents are neglectful, a sibling might step up into the parenting role, creating a complex, co-dependent relationship.

Birth Order:

People will argue about this for aaaaagggess, but broadly speaking, the following personality traits are accurate:

Oldest/Oldest available (when the actual eldest isn’t around)/Oldest Daughter (when the older brothers are useless around the house):

  • Strengths: organized, responsible, leader, probably half-decent at babysitting, cooking, and cleaning, may be a peacemaker between younger siblings.
  • Weaknesses: bossy/opinionated, default center of attention OR invisible depending on the situation, may bully younger siblings
  • With great privilege comes great responsibility

Middle (depending on place in the middle and age gaps, may lean more towards oldest/youngest behaviors in the family dynamic):

  • Strengths: flexible, independent, more laid-back attitude, probably makes friends outside of the family easily
  • Weaknesses: flighty, deliberately annoying, might feel inadequate or looked over in an older sibling’s “shadow”

Youngest:

  • Strengths: “Go-get-em” attitude. They want to run with the older kids, and parents are too exhausted to stop them, so they learn a lot young. If the eldest could stay at home alone overnight at 16, the youngest is probably doing that at 14. Confident. The other default center of attention.
  • Weaknesses: Tag-along, loud/obnoxious, used to getting their way.

When someone only has one sibling, it’s only the oldest/youngest dynamic, and it’s more likely for both to act independently. The parent’s attention isn’t split so many ways, like it would be in a large family, so carefully consider all the interactions and personalities and how they would affect the dynamic between the two. Specifically, if there’s a large age gap, they may function more like only children that live in the same house.

When you have a large family, pretty much everything in your life rotates around the family’s schedule. When are your parents available to take you to X event? Do you have to be present at Y event, who’s babysitting tonight? Each person has a defined role within the family and the relationships reflect that. More people = more chores to be done around the house and everyone would be expected to pitch in, though the elder siblings might share more of the work.

Shared Life Experiences:

How much time did they spend together growing up, and was that a positive or negative experience? Did their family experience a traumatic event? (probably in the protagonist backstory). How did they react and support each other through that? If there’s common ground, they might not talk about it because nothing needs to be said: they lived through it together. Would they hold grudges for old fights, or keep score or favors? What fond memories can they bond over?

Personality Dynamics/Clashes:

Depending on how you built your characters from the above questions, this can be a highly story-specific question to answer, but I’m just going to throw some generic dynamic ideas together inspired by my own siblings and stories:

  • Oldest and 2nd Oldest sisters are mistaken as twins because they’re on the same mental wavelength 80% of the time. Lots of affectionate exasperation and mutual complaining/info dumping.
  • Middle was the youngest for years until a younger sibling was born. Finds themselves caught between youngest “immaturity” and new expectations to be a good example of an older sibling.
  • Two middle kids (2 years apart) bicker as small children but grow into being chill friends as teenagers once they both mature a little.
  • Younger middle has different favored older siblings to go to for different problems when they can’t get mom or dad’s attention (asking oldest for help with school, older middle for help with friends, etc.)
  • The impartial sibiling mediating arguments between overly concerned but justifiably frustrated parents and overly defensive but justifiably irritated sibling.
  • Parents mediating arguments between overly concerned but justifiably frustrated older sibling and overly defensive but justifiably irritated younger sibling.
  • Younger middle and youngest siblings being absolute agents of chaos together, and that insanity factor growing exponentially for each added person involved.
  • The house is just TOO NOISY with all of this chatter, you’re banished outside until dinner time. Go play.
  • The dynamic of: “oh my gosh they’re such a dumbass, but I love them too much to let them get away with this bad decision.
  • Protective of each other against outsiders, even if they bicker a lot: “The only one allowed to punch my sibling is me.”
  • Complaining with each other about their parents
  • So many dumb in-jokes

Communication

If you’re writing a large family, communication is SUPER important. (communication is always important, but especially when there’s a lot of people in the mix). It’s likely the parents have some sort of tracking system in place so they can keep tabs on where their kids are – not to be controlling (though that’s possible if the parents are especially authoritative) but practically, to coordinate rides, and tell when people are going to be home, and figure out what time is dinner going to be (if they eat together), and who’s in the area to do errands, and to check if the kid got to the place safely.

The kids will also learn patience, because they might have to wait around their school for an hour until someone can pick them up. Middle and younger kids are more likely to find friends to catch a ride, whereas oldest kids might just opt to sit in the cafeteria and get ahead on homework, for example. Any older sibling will inevitably help with taxi duties.

In modern settings, that could be a location sharing app or a groupchat where parents say “text us when you get to school!”, or in fantasy settings you could worldbuild a different solution that accomplishes the same goal. The Weasley’s Clock is a great example of this, but you might also have synchronized charms or beacon bracelets or something else that works within your world!

Culture

How does the world treat families and sibling relationships? Do people live in generational households, growing up with dozens of cousins as pseudo-siblings? How much are children expected to respect and defer to their elders, and would you ever find the oldest sibling play wrestling with their baby brother? What kind of coming of age rituals might affect how older or younger siblings are perceived? Do you maintain ties to your family throughout adulthood or are found families common and accepted by law? Family is the most fundamental building block of a society, so once you design how that dynamic works, it can inform other aspects of your world’s philosophy and cultural practices.

I hope this helped you develop the families in your WIP! Before you go, I’d love some feedback on the site and how it’s working for you. Please take a minute to fill out my form and let me know how I can improve. Happy writing!

Free Templates: Outline and Edit Sheet

Hello my friends, and Happy Thanksgiving if you celebrate! I had meant to share with you today an excerpt from Store, which explains the yellow rose symbol you can see around my blog and social media. This scene comes from chapter 12, and I had left off editing several months ago on chapter 10. Since I took a hiatus to work on Runaways, I needed to reread much of what I already completed in order to figure out what to do next. In the process, I started experimenting with a new method to stay organized. Storge is a hugely complicated read: painfully over-ambitious story, with 3 (and a half) subplots (if you count the Avian drama), and eight POVs, so I needed a new way to keep all the details straight and my old word doc list method didn’t cut it. I’m quite pleased with how my new spreadsheet works, but got so carried away in my analysis, and midterms, and hosting our family’s feast, that I never finished the scene.

But I’ve been talking about this incessantly on tumblr, so I’m not wholly without content for you today. I’ve created a blank version of my sheet, which is available here for you to copy and use for your own stories! I also created a blank version of the outline I use for brainstorming my stories. Both of these documents are shared by clicking on the links, and you will have editing privileges. Kindly don’t write in this document, make a copy, then leave the original blank for others to use! I explained how I use my brainstorming documents in this post and broke down the editing process from first read-through to final draft in this post. With the links out of the way, the rest of this entry will is an updated version of Step 3 in the editing process: the Developmental Edits.

The purpose of developmental edits is to change the content of the story to make it as clear and entertaining as possible. In this step, you stitch together plotholes, build up the character arcs, develop narrative foils, track motifs and foreshadowing, keep the timeline and pacing on track, make sure the world-building is consistent, and balance the POVs and subplots to make sure you don’t accidentally forget one for several chapters.

I have several tabs at the bottom of the sheet to keep track of each item in depth. The first page is an overview master plan. I list the individual scenes down from beginning to end, with the column next to that merging several cells together to show chapters. Then I have color coded boxes to show which POV has each scene, and which subplot is currently being followed. That’s also where I have their length in word count and pages, what kind of scene it is, and the timeline. This lets me set up useful formulas and make graphs, even though getting those incremental numbers from Word is a pain. The program isn’t set up in the google sheet, as it would vary for the number of scenes and chapters each stories has, but the option is there for you to use.

To the right are snapshot boxes for each item I mentioned before. Those columns get their own pages for more detail, because my “thinking out loud” rarely fits nicely here. I’ll do analysis on the appropriate page, then write the things I need to fix on the master sheet. This example is from the characterization sheet, but I laid out the others in the same way, changing the column headers and colors as needed.

This is where the thinking happens: I’m an underwriter, so when I wrote the 1st draft, you only ever saw the characters actions as they moved the plot along, but I wrote next to no introspection or “down time” to release the tension where the characters could show their thought process or growth. This process forces me to slow down and compare what I conceptualize for each scene versus what I actually wrote. Readers aren’t mind readers, and this puts me in the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the full picture. I’ve noticed loads of inconsistencies by filling up these boxes. This method works very well for complex or long novels. I didn’t have these steps for Runaways because it only has 1 POV and no subplots, but I’m finding it really useful here. It’s not for every WIP/writer, but for any outline-happy epic fantasy authors with Too Many Things to keep track of, I’d recommend giving it a try!

Happy Writing!

How To Write Impactful Symbols

Hello my friends, today we’re covering every English teacher’s favorite subject! (cue collective eye roll). Take it from someone who started an engineering major specifically to avoid taking Lit classes: Symbols can actually be a fascinating and extremely effective technique to elicit emotional reactions from your characters and your audience. It’s one of my favorite, but poorly understood, rhetorical tools in a storyteller’s arsenal, so today I wanted to break down the topic and discuss how to write symbols that work.

What Makes The Curtains Blue? Or, When Does Symbolism Matter?

Whether a trait is a symbol depends on context: specifically in its reoccurrence and connection to the themes. A symbol needs to impact the characters and the way they interact with the world. If a protagonist remarks on the blue curtains and they’re never mentioned again, that’s setting the scene. If the curtains are closed whenever a character experiences a depressive episode, and they’re a barrier to the support system of friends and family reaching out to help, then that could be a symbol for the isolation of mental illness. A symbol is normally a physical object, though this isn’t a requirement. If a character refers in the narration to his depression as a “curtain of fog” throughout the novel, but actual curtains don’t affect the story, that would be an example of an extended metaphor or motif, rather than a symbol. So now with the definitions out of the way…

How To Make Symbols Relevant and memorable

Making an effective symbol is half about making sure readers remember it in the middle of all the other plot stuff going on. It really comes down to pattern recognition. One mention makes it a throwaway detail. Two mentions make it a coincidence. Three or more make it intentional. You also want to make sure you include the symbol in a context where it will be the most memorable, like an emotionally charged scene, rather than just setting up the environment. If you want readers to remember, the characters need to care about the symbol, and draw attention to it in some direct way that points out, “this will be back.” It’s an emotional Checkov’s Gun, where if you tie an object to an emotion, we expect the same object to return to evoke that same emotion again, or remind the character of the original occurrence. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the next section, but keep that reoccurance in mind.

It can also be interesting to compare the contexts in which you introduce the symbol is introduced. If an object is a useful tool in one situation, and serves as a damning marker in another scene, it becomes a more complex and interesting element that carries that context forward. When you introduce a symbol in different frames, not only do you draw a parallel between those two situations, you can also juxtapose them to take advantage of dramatic irony. This is the sort of setup-payoff loop associated with foreshadowing, the kind that makes the audience point at the page and go “oh! so that’s how that comes back!” Additionally, in mysteries, these can take the form of subtle clues and red herrings, to point reader attention away from the relevant details. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity!

The emotional impact of motifs and symbols

Not only can you juxtapose the context to take advantage of dramatic irony, you can also draw parallels and comparisons between the character’s mental states. A symbol can serve as a reminder of a different point in their character arc, to showcase how much they’ve grown or fallen since the last appearance. If they tie their emotions up in a physical object, and they bring that baggage with them, literally. It brings the emotion to the present to impact the reader as well. This is how you can create a mixture of anger and heartbreak to create betrayal over an ex’s ring, or bittersweet at a memento of childhood. How does the character react to the symbol when they don’t want it? Would they try to destroy or throw away the memories associated with the thing, or treasure finding it? If it’s something they keep intentionally, how would they feel if they lost it, or had to give it up?

This doesn’t have to be a simple onetime only setup/payoff event. Recurring motifs let you track those emotions through a story, each time growing more complex, harder to define, and more intense. It might not always be relevant, but each time you bring that object back into play, the reader recognizes, “oh! The symbol is back! This is important!” The trade of tension and relief between appearances also helps to keep the story moving as the audience wonders when the symbol will come back again. Does a character reject it in one scene, then rejoice at its return, only to cast it away again when they realize they are no longer tied to the past? Does the villain taunt them with their past failures, only for the hero to reclaim them as their own? These are the powerful turning points that make up the emotional beats of a story, and symbols let you leverage the backstory in a way that profoundly effects the present.

Was this a useful article for you? Do you have any symbols in your stories? Let me know! Next week, I’ll be discussing a book that uses several symbols spectacularly, to show you just how diverse they can be, and just how much range you can get from them. Until then, Happy Writing! 🙂

6 Types of Framing Structures

Framing Structures are a literary device used to add context to a story for the benefit of the audience’s understanding or deepening the experience. They’re everywhere in fiction, but how can you choose which one works best for your story? In my experience, they fit into one of the following six categories, which I’ve defined for you today! Each has different purposes, strengths, and weaknesses, and none is better than the others, so this article takes an analytical look at what makes them work well, and includes examples to illustrate. So let’s get into the trope talk, shall we?

Passed down

These are stories that start with one character (normally an elder) passing down a story to a younger audience that serves as a reader stand in. We hear the story within a story through the lens of the character hearing it for the first time. This is often the simplest kind of framing sequence and creates a feeling of familiarity or relatability with the framing characters. Writers understand the joy of telling a story to an enraptured audience, and who hasn’t sat for a read-aloud as a child? This framing sequence also brings the story into our world, and people may want to go find the story from the story. A great example of his framing structure is The Princess Bride (both the movie and book), where the grandfather tells the story to his sick grandson, and the author makes snarky commentary in the margins.

Recounted

This structure is very similar to the “Passed Down” structure with one key difference – the character doing the storytelling exists diegetically or in-universe. The scale of this frame can vary from the protagonist recounting their entire life story to a new acquaintance to sharing a short tale between characters as they sit around the campfire. This is another common and relatively simple structure that can be used to great effect for immersion or demonstrating a moral. Often, at the end of the story, a character might explain what they or the subjects learned from the experience and how they came to be in the current situation. These can take a first or third person approach and the form of a retrospective or in media res, where the reader is filled in on the history as necessary. The audience learns more about the world through the characters, as this is a great way to sneak in subtle exposition. It also helps you learn about the characters themselves. Are they an unreliable narrator or lecturing their subject?

An example of this structure is seen in A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, where the monster tells Conor three stories in exchange for his truth. This is one of the oldest examples of a framing sequences as well, being found in One Thousand and One Nights, where the storyteller is a woman in the sultan’s court who receives a death sentence, but tells the king a story each night, never ending it before dawn so that she can postpone her execution one more day. After One Thousand and One Nights of stories, the king decides to spare her life. (For further reading, The Library of Congress has a fascinating article on this.)

Dream Sequence

This structure is very useful for playing with surreality and fantastical elements without breaking the status quo. It allows endless what-if scenarios to put the characters through a gauntlet of incredible (or horrifying) experiences without necessarily putting them in physical harm, though the stakes can be raised if what hurts the character in the dream world can also hurt them in real life. Sometimes this trope gets a bad rap for being used as a fake-out, but dreams give us a deeper look into a character’s psyche, especially if they’re not the type to share their emotions externally. The Matrix is the quintessential example of this trope, but my personal favorite is my good friend Quinn’s book, Dream’s Shadow, which takes this framing sequence to the next level in a way I’ve never seen pulled off so well. If you’re interested in reading more about this WIP, you can read our conversation here!

Nested

Nested structure is an exponential version of the recounted structure, where a character begins to tell their own story, then takes a tangent to explain an element of that story. This gives a “story inside a story inside a story inside a…” situation, which can provide more depth to the world and set up foreshadowing for future plot points to come back later. This is less common in modern literature, which is as streamlined and trimmed as possible, but it can be seen often in classic literature. In Frankenstein, the framing character is the sister of a sea captain receiving his letters from an artic expedition. The captain comes across Victor Frankenstein who tells him the story of how he arrived in the artic, which includes telling the Creature’s story of how he survived abandonment by hiding near a family cottage, which includes telling the story of that family, and then backing out of the layers towards the present. The entire novel is told in retrospect using a dive in-climb out model.

Another subset of this is the tangent-setup nesting structure, which is seen in The Count of Monte Cristo. Every few chapters when Dumas explores a new plot thread, it may seem like he’s simply getting distracted and exploring unnecessary backdrop – I remember when first reading, I found the Italian Bandit and Haydee subplots to be tedious, but just when I thought I’d forgotten about the event, the characters return to play a role in the final revenge schemes. It’s pulled off so well I wrote a 4 part analysis last year, so if you’re interested in learning more about this, I’ve linked the first part here.

Epistolary

Epistolary framing structures tell a story through letters, newspaper clippings, journal entries, and the everyday writings of characters interacting with the plot. Often, each snippet contains one limited POV, and the sum of each part gradually reveals more about the story through the eyes of the narrating character. This format is especially useful for mysteries and suspense where keeping the audience partially in the dark is important to the plot, and they allow for an extremely narrow focus on character psychology. Dracula is the best example of this framing structure, and I also wrote this post breaking down why it works so well for the horror genre if you’re interested in reading more.

Discovered

In a discovered plot, the framing character is an investigator of some sort collecting clues about what’s really going on. This framing structure is not unique to serial mysteries, but this is perhaps one of the most common examples, where an anthology of standalone adventures gradually builds to an overarching meta plot. While it is difficult to pull off, the culmination of events can be extremely satisfying, and red-string brigades will have a blast trying to connect the dots before the framing character does. This structure also supplies endless rewatch/relisten/reread value as you can go back and pick out the foreshadowing in each episode. My favorite example of this trope is Rusty Quill’s The Magnus Archives, a horror fiction podcast that has some of the best setup/payoff delivery of any work I’ve seen.

Which framing structure is your favorite? Have you read, watched, or listened to any of the examples provided here? Are you using a certain framing structure in your wip? Tell me about it in the comments, let’s start a discussion. Thank you for reading, and happy writing!

Storytelling and STEM

This article is a little different from my usual fare. Between school and last week’s post, I wanted to talk about the practical side of being a creative writer while studying and working in engineering. Most of us aren’t full-time writers, so I’m hoping some of this applies to other people. At least, I hope it provides an interesting insight into why I’ve made certain choices with this blog. This also serves as an answer to some questions I’ve gotten on Tumblr about this topic, so I hope you enjoy!

How I balance my writing with my career choice:

I started posting my writing online on Tumblr the summer before I started uni. I considered how I wanted to present myself in both aspects of my life. It was my first venture into any social media, so I set up accounts using my real name to connect with professionals from my school. I also didn’t want my engineering professors, admissions councilors, or potential recruiters to google my name, find my “fantasy adventure nonsense,” and get confused. Or worse, dismiss me as being too flighty or inconsistent to succeed in the engineering field. I also wanted to maintain a certain level of privacy. If my writing attracted negative attention, I would have the safety of anonymity.

A year, a manuscript, and a community later, I started this website. Hi! I’m Etta Grace. Welcome!

How I balance studies with writing

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Why the World Needs Storytellers

Let me tell you a true story…

I enrolled in my university with enough transfer credit to wreck my normal first-year course schedule, but a low enough score on the Chem AP test that I had to retake the general/intro chem course, which was a brilliant start to my chemical engineering educational career. After much pestering of the department offices, I registered for a few advanced courses, loopholed my way into starting a business minor a year early (though that’s a story for another day), and arrived for orientation feeling slightly rattled by the fact I’d already broken a bunch of rules before the semester even started.

One of my regularly-scheduled classes was Intro to Engineering – basically a crash course in the different programs offered that let you meet the faculty and explore the labs. It was in this class I met Professor G. After a week or two of working with him, I knew I had my heart set on chemE, and I asked him about getting involved in the department research. Yes, as a stupid undergrad first-year that was retaking genchem. I truly expected the faculty to laugh in my face, but Prof G listened to my request with an indulgent smile, said that I could totally join one of the teams, and asked me what field interested me.

I bluescreened. I didn’t think I’d get this far, and I fumbled for an answer besides, “uhhhh. Cool chemistry stuff?”

Professor G took pity on my ignorant embarrassed self and started asking follow up questions about my interests, clubs, what events I had done in Science Olympiad during high school, genuinely trying to help me find something to focus on, and encouraging my curiosity. In my fluster, I let slip that I like writing, and prayed he’d let it slide and go back to quizzing me on hydrogen fuel cells.

He zoned in on that like a missile. “What do you like to write?”

“Oh… fiction. Fantasy novels. Nothing useful to research.”

“You’re a storyteller!”

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